In the Victorian era, Toronto’s beverage of choice was beer – even for babies.  It was the lesser of two evils when one had to contend with the perils of untreated water.  In 1837, the Gooderham & Worts Distillery was born to quench the city’s thirst.  When the distillery stopped production in the 1990s, it transformed into the Distillery District, a pedestrian hotbed for arts, food, and culture.

Although the Distillery is located just minutes from downtown Toronto, people think of it as removed – and the vintage trucks only enhance this perception as they sit idly on the streets; they look as though they ran out of fuel when the distillery ran dry.  But these burnished-metal skeletons do not look out of place: the cobblestoned roads, crimson bricks and 31-metre chimneystack are all powerful reminders of the Victorian industrial era.  Modernity has intruded with the development of condominiums, but the landscape remains untarnished: one resident, who is a displaced Parisian, claims that this is the closest he will ever get to his beloved hometown in Toronto.

Thanks to him, these are my six favourite experiences in the Distillery:

1.  Be a fly on the (brick) wall at Balzac’s

This historic precinct scorns the latest Starbucks for one -of-a-kind cafés.  It’s easy to pick the local favourite: Balzac’s Coffee Roastery.  Perhaps it’s the fact that this retro-café used to be the Old Pump House, but still possesses the soul of a Parisian saloon from the elegant coffee bar to the lustrous, Vaudeville chandelier.  I like to feast my eyes on the beatniks getting their caffeine buzz or out-of-work actors poring over scripts.   But you can also admire the eclectic mix of paintings and photographs that adorn the walls and – for a fee – take a little piece of Balzac’s home with you.

Architecture and ambience aside, Balzac’s coffee is second to none: their baristas and coffee beans have a conscience so you can expect their organic, Fair Trade best.  In the summer, you’ll be fighting for a spot on the patio with yuppies and their puppies.  Pet owners, take note: Balzac’s even keeps a bowl of water outside the door for your pets. (Just double-check the bowl: nicotine addicts have mistaken it for an ashtray on more than one occasion.)

Balzac’s Coffee Roastery, The Distillery District, 55 Mill Street, Bldg #60, Toronto, Ontario, M5A 3C4, ph: (416) 207-1709

2.  Appreciate alfresco art

Sometimes the perfect complement to art can be a starry night.  The Distillery District regularly commissions contemporary artists to display their sculptures outdoors.  Michael Christian is one sculptor who exemplifies this aesthetic with creatures that might populate other planets – or a Tim Burton movie.  The first time I saw Christian’s creations, they stopped me dead in my tracks.  He had forged two 40-foot, metal monsters to adorn the alleyways: “Koilos” is 2000 pounds of steel wrought into a crouching alien with flames wreathing his head; “IT” required 10,000 pounds of steel and resembles a nightmarish spider with its exaggerated head and legs.  Arachnophobes should stay home, but braver mortals can admire the sculptures by moonlight when the creatures seem most at home.

3. Surrender to Soma

When you enter Soma Chocolatemaker, the aroma is overpowering.  Chocolate-dusted windows expose the vintage cocoa-bean roaster, the vaunted 80-year-old gelato-mélangeur and other tools of the trade.  Patrons can observe the machinations while they wait to taste Fudge Cake gelato or truffles with balsamic vinaigrette.  In the wintertime, I drop by for a mug of Spicy Mayan hot chocolate.  At Soma, a little chocolate goes a long way.

Soma Chocolatemaker, 55 Mill Street, Building 48, Toronto, Ontario, M5A 3C4, ph: (416) 815 – 7662

4. Wine and Dine at Tappo

At first glance, Tappo Wine Bar & Restaurant seems formidable with its towering limestone facade, but a giant cork above the door begs to differ – and this same whimsy informs the atmosphere inside. When the ponderous doors swing open, the interior is full of contradictions, from the ivory columns to the industrial relics from its life as a grain mill.  The dining room is elegantly bedecked, but your neighbour could be a 25-tonne grain scale or a wine barrel.

South-facing windows shed light on its selection of vintage wines.  The wine complements a heavenly menu of Italian fare with Mediterranean flare: I indulged in the Chilean sea bass and saved room for the silky panna cotta. Tappo’s versatility is showcased by the events it hosts year-round; from bar mitzvahs to bachelor parties.  Although the rough brick and exposed beams are reminiscent of a wine cave, the light-hearted sophistication of Tappo proves that cave-dwelling is dangerously underrated.

Tappo Wine Bar & Restaurant, 55 Mill Street, Bldg # 3, Toronto, Ontario, M5A 3C4, ph: (647) 430-1111

5.  Let Soulpepper tell you a story

The Soulpepper Theatre Company emerged from the collective brain of 12 actors looking to inspire a new generation of theatre-goers and thespians.  Today, Soulpepper continues to inspire by interpreting 20th century pieces by playwrights like Chekhov, Beckett and Stoppard with a Canadian twist.  The intimacy of the theatres belies their confidence in the production and their audience.  Last year, I attended Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and I felt as though I was an extra in the play itself.

Soulpepper Theatre Company, 55 Mill Street, Building 49, Toronto, Ontario, M5A 3C4, ph: (416) 203-6264

6.   Star-gaze in Hollywood North

The Distillery District has become one of the most coveted postal codes for big-screen productions in North America.  More than 1700 films have been shot here including “X-Men” and “Chicago”.  Film directors put all 13 acres to good use: the Distillery remains one of the best examples of architecture from the Victorian Industrial era.  You can almost see the 19th-century ghosts against the backdrop of limestone and brick, but less imaginative souls may have to settle for the errant celebrity instead…

For more information on Toronto’s historic Distillery District, visit http://www.thedistillerydistrict.com

For directions on how to get to the Distillery District, visit http://www.ttc.ca

See more things to do in Canada or check back soon for our Canada travel information page.

Your thoughts on "Toronto distilled: six reasons to visit the city’s most historic district"

  • Thank you for an interesting article, ever since I've moved to Toronto I have wanted to visit the Distillery district. Even though I am more of a beer person, Tappo's Wine Bar looks really promising, and I am sure to take my boyfriend with me there. Thanks Cara, without you I probably wouldn't go... Heather

    on February 9, 2011 at 6:16 pm Reply
  • I'm so glad it helped, Heather! I didn't know about it for a decade and was only introduced to it recently. It really is a beautiful part of Toronto. Have fun! Best, Cara

    on February 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm Reply
  • We met an old Torontonian (?!) at the Arthur's Pass hostel last week. He was telling us what a horrible area it used to be ... it's one heck of a facelift. We're both looking forward to visiting (you did say wine bars after all!).

    on February 9, 2011 at 9:41 pm Reply
  • Ah yes the wine bar is great, but the chocolate at Soma is heavenly...tough call. :)

    on February 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm Reply

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